This piece was originally posted on The Age on 1/24/09.
If you want to publish stylish and unique books, you don’t have to be a big concern, writes Simon Caterson.
IF SMALL is beautiful, as the economist E. F. Schumacher asserted, then Melbourne may boast of having a micro-publishing scene that is very attractive. Dozens of tiny publishers are producing everything from handmade recipe books, fiction and poetry to popular non-fiction and even book-like objects that defy classification.
According to the publishers, the diversity and eclecticism are just the points. Micro-publishing, they say, is all about the freedom to publish anything you want, whenever you want, in any form you like. There are as many different approaches to micro-publishing as there are publishers themselves, though the freedom gained via low overheads and small print runs does not exclude the possibility of producing books that appeal to a wide range of readers.
At the more entrepreneurial end of the micro-publishing spectrum is Arcade Publications, which has identified a gap in the market for short, inexpensive, carefully designed books covering aspects of Melbourne’s hitherto unexplored history.
Arcade made its publishing debut in 2007 with Lisa Lang’s pocket-sized biography of eccentric millionaire and philanthropist E. W. Cole and its next book, due in March, is about the equally colourful figure of Madame Brussels, the notorious brothel-keeper who accommodated the rich and powerful during the era of Marvellous Melbourne.
Arcade’s Rose Michael says that "the whole enterprise is a very close-knit ‘familial’ affair", which means that publishing decisions can be made quickly and that each person involved has a say in all aspects of the publishing process.
"Having worked in larger companies, you have so many decisions made by committee, and things are owned by so many different areas. In micro-publishing, you are able to just kind of do stuff around an island bench."
For Michael and her business partners, Dale Campisi and Michael Brady, publishing is just one aspect of the firm’s expanding operations. Arcade also produces walking tours with Hidden Secrets Tours, including the popular Melbourne by the Book walking tour of literary Melbourne.
Campisi regards literary events and communication as complementing one another. "We all love a good event, and the purpose of our public activities is mostly about creating community around our publishing output. Storytelling is not a solitary activity."
Less straightforwardly commercial, though no less dedicated, is the group made up of food writer Rachel Pitts, designer and illustrator Katherine Bird and photographer Leah Holscher, who publish collectively as the Hungry Girls. The Hungry Girls’ Cookbook began life as a collection of recipes originally put together by the three friends as a Christmas present. Two years later, it is available in bookstores throughout Australia and in Britain and has been joined by a second volume of recipes.
Pitts explains the success of The Hungry Girls’ Cookbook in terms of its accessibility and the care that goes into the production of each copy. "I think the core thing about the Hungry Girls books is that they’re not intimidating and the people behind it aren’t celebrities. The books really make people think, hey, I could do something like this and it could be beautiful."
While micro-publishing lends itself to collaboration and a pooling of complementary skills, it may also take the form of a solo venture. Novelist Antoni Jach runs Modern Writing Press, which is soon to release The Fable of Arachne, a collection of poems by Sallie Muirden, and has previously published The Bird, The Belltower, a book by Peter Lyssiotis combining text and images. Jach says that micro-publishing in essence is "an act of optimism — to bring words out into the light of day rather than remaining in the bottom drawer. It’s a gift of sorts."
Jach says that micro-publishing "is usually not for profit, which means more can be spent on the look and the feel of the book". Jach cites The Bird, The Belltower, which has no title or author’s name on the cover, only an image, is printed on 120 gsm art paper, with 16 pages of colour plates, and has endpapers.
Such features, he says, all add to the lasting artistic value and beauty of the book but none of them could be included if there was a commercial imperative. Distributed through launches and other local means, Jach says the entire print run of 300 copies of The Bird, The Belltower was sold and he was able to recoup his costs.
A sign that small-scale publishing in Melbourne has reached critical mass came last year with the establishment of the Small Press Underground Networking Community (SPUNC). According to general manager John Hunter, micro-publishing could not flourish without the support of Victoria’s independent booksellers, a sentiment endorsed wholeheartedly by micro-publishers themselves.
While modern print technology and online communities obviously assist micro-publishers enormously in getting the word out, physical distribution of books through established channels remains a significant cost factor. Hence, in part, the impetus for SPUNC.
Hunter likens the vitality and dynamism of micro-publishing to that of the indie music scene. "They both grow out of a local scene that is unique to Melbourne yet has connections with similar scenes around the world — rather than out of ‘the industry’ per se. At a commercial level, neither local bands nor authors have much chance of being stocked in major chain stores, or, for that matter, supported in mainstream media, so their natural and shared affinity is with independent shops and independent media. This leads to cross-pollination which produces beautiful hybrids.
"It’s an exciting blossoming that, like a lot of organic processes, spreads quickly across ground that is so much broader than the narrow, specialised demarcations that the industry tries to impose."
Read the second half of the article here.